Supplementary submission from GeneWatch
The Committee has requested evidence on Lord
Drayson's proposal that the UK should make choices about the balance
of investment in science and innovation to favour those areas
in which the UK has clear competitive advantage.
GeneWatch UK welcomes the Committee's call for evidence
on this important issue. Our responses to the Committee's questions
Q1. What form a debate or consultation about
the question should take and who should lead it
GeneWatch strongly welcomes the Committee's
suggestion that there should be public debate and consultation
about investment in science and innovation, and whether or how
this should be prioritised. Some key principles for effective
participation have been highlighted in the EC-funded report "Participatory
Science and Scientific Participation", which has already
been circulated to members.1 However, one of the key findings
of this report is that there is no point consulting if there is
no intention of actually changing decisions. The exact mechanisms
for public engagement in decision-making are irrelevant when people
are well aware that major decisions are being taken long in advance
of any public consultation: this must be addressed if debate is
to be meaningful.
The Government has been committed to a "knowledge-based
economy" since 1997. This has included a secret commitment
to building a genetic database in the NHS since at least 1999.
Hidden choices about the balance of investment in science and
innovation were made more than 10 years ago, when a small circle
advisors from the biotech and nuclear industries were appointed
to various government "competitiveness" task forces.2,
3 The same people advised the Government to throw away any old-fashioned
ideas about policy evaluation and to treat anyone who questioned
anything as "anti-science" or "anti-technology".4
These people aim to achieve:
surveillance of entire populations
(the "database state");
control of the world's food supply
(via patents on seeds, plants and animals); and
control of the world's energy supply
(including uranium and coal).5
Examples of exaggerated promises include:6
The idea of screening people's genes and targeting
lifestyle advice or medication at people who are "genetically
susceptible" was invented by scientists funded by the tobacco
industry, who wanted people to believe (falsely) that lung cancer
was in their genes.7 It has since been backed by the pharmaceutical,
food and private healthcare industries, who want to expand the
market for medication and new "functional foods" to
rich, healthy people. However, genes are poor predictors of most
diseases in most people and no common genetic variations exist
which meet medical screening criteria.8
The widely promoted "cancer preventing"
genetically modified tomato, contains enhanced levels of an antioxidant
called anthocyanin. Claims about health benefits have been based
on a single study conducted in mice. Yet a recent Cochrane review
of medical evidence found that most early studies of better tested
antioxidants had been wrong and that there was no evidence of
benefit and some evidence of harm. The claims about the tomato
have been criticised by Cancer Research UK,9 scientists at the
FSA and the NHS.
GM Golden ricethe much-hyped solution
to vitamin A deficiency in childrenwas only donated to
poor farmers after two major clinical trials (published in 1994
and 1996) found that its main ingredient, beta-carotene, increased
the risk of cancer in smokers and asbestos workers. Its advocates
have never properly assessed either its benefits or its potential
In December 2007, former Chief Scientist Professor
Sir David King admitted that a project he had claimed was using
GM crops to help farmers in Africa, was in fact not using GM plants
at all, but agro-ecological farming methods.10
In this context, it is not surprising that the
Science Horizons project identified a "striking trust
deficit" and found that some people saw expert priorities
for research investments as inevitably not the same as those of
the average citizen.11, 12
Q2. Whether such a policy is desirable or
Governments and companies have always influenced
decisions about the balance of investment in science and innovation.
Lord Drayson is being more open about these commitments in order
to secure more subsidy, now that it is clear that Government's
massive investment in a biotech economy has been an expensive
failure. The increased transparency is welcome, but accountability
Research by the Harvard economist Professor Gary
Pisanoconducted before the current economic crisishas
shown that even floated biotech companies, let alone small spin-out
companies backed by venture capital, have brought no benefit to
the global economy, and without the largest US company, Amgen,
have overall made steady losses for over 30 years.13 He concludes
that "it is virtually impossible to find other historical
examples, at least at the industry level, for which such a large
fraction of new entrants can be expected to endure such prolonged
periods of losses and for which the vast majority may never become
viable economic entities". The entire industry was built
on convincing venture capitalists that Intellectual Property (IP)
could be bought and sold independently of the final productleading
to George Poste's infamous claim that "genes are the currency
of the future" (followed by lobbying by him and others
for the adoption of gene patenting in Europe). The expansion of
the patent system is widely recognized to have stifled innovation
and most biotech's are expected to go bust because they have no
Drayson's latest idea is to pour yet more money
into exploiting electronic medical records linked to DNA (another
idea first proposed by Poste). This would be a disaster for health,
for the NHS and for the privacy of the entire population.14
It is therefore highly undesirable that the
Government continues to pour money down the biotech drain without
any kind of independent assessment of the unsubstantiated claims
that this will deliver health benefits, save money or kick-start
However, this does not mean that the Government
should not make choices about the balance of investment in science
and innovationit already does. What needs to happen is
for these decisions to be made more democratic and accountable.
The overall effect of the policies adopted to
promote the knowledge-based economy has been to weaken accountability
for significant investments in research and development, which
are determined neither by free markets (which have rejected GM
foods and nuclear power, and are likely to reject human genome
sequencing), nor by democratic institutions.
Our previous submission to the Committee's inquiry
highlighted the issues that need to be addressed.
Q3. What the potential implications of such
a policy are for UK science and engineering, higher education,
industry and the economy was a whole
If decisions continue to be made by a narrow
circle of vested interests, this is likely to exacerbate the damaging
trend towards "hypothesis-free science" and the creation
of a technocratic education system, at the expense of theory.
For example, it is possible to demonstrate that the
complexity of biology and the important roles of choice, chance
and social, economic and environmental factors in complex diseases
put real limits on the predictability of complex diseases and
the likely utility of genetic "susceptibility" testing,
using existing data.8, 15 But this requires some theory, rather
than the type of genetic research that can be done by robots.16
Q4. Were such a policy pursued, which research
sectors are most likely to benefit and which are most likely to
If decisions continue to be made by a narrow
circle of vested interests, they will continue to decide who wins
and losesexcept this trend will be exacerbated by an even
stronger concentration of public money in the biotech, nuclear
and surveillance sectors (borrowed at the expense of future generations,
who will have to deal with the social and environmental legacy
and repay the debt). Sectors likely to lose out are the same ones
that lose out now, ie anything that does not contribute to the
three aims outlined above (control of personal data, DNA and the
health market; control of global seed supplies; control of global
energy). Examples include: agro-ecological faming methods and
public health research and anything that requires actual thinking
or learning as opposed to data-mining.
Science and Scientific Participation: The role of Civil Society
Organisations in decision-making about novel developments in biotechnologies.
November 2008. http://www.participationinscience.eu/psx2/final/PSX2_final%20report.pdf
2 GeneWatch UK (forthcoming) Bioscience for life?
Who decides what research is done in health and agriculture?
3 GeneWatch UK (2009) Bioscience for life? Appendix
A. Available on: http://www.genewatch.org/uploads/f03c6d66a9b354535738483c1c3d49e4/UK_Biobank_fin_1.pdf
4 Poste G, Fears R (1999) Joining up for the
genome. Times Higher Education Supplement, 19 February
5 Management changes could be key to ENRC's future.
The Times. 26 March 2009. http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/markets/article5977562.ece
6 GeneWatch UK (2009) Response to Brown's science
speech. Press Release. 27 February 2009.
7 Wallace HM (forthcoming) Big Tobacco and the
human genome: driving the scientific bandwagon? Submitted to Genomics,
Society and Policy.
8 Wallace HM Genetic susceptibility to disease.
Encyclopedia of Life Sciences. In Press.
10 Poulter S (2007) Scientist who claimed GM
crops could solve Third World hunger admits he got it wrong. Daily
Mail. 18 December 2007. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-503339/Scientist-claimed-GM-crops-solve-Third-World-hunger-admits-got-wrong.html
12 Dialogue by Design (2007) Science Horizons:
Deliberative Panel Report. September 2007. http://www.sciencehorizons.org.uk/resources/sciencehorizons_deliberative_panel.pdf
13 Pisano GP (2006) Science Business: The promise,
the reality, and the future of biotech. Harvard Business School
14 GeneWatch UK (2009) Is "early" health
good health? The implications of genomic data-mining in the NHS.
April 2009. http://www.genewatch.org/uploads/f03c6d66a9b354535738483c1c3d49e4/Data_mining_brief_fin.doc
15 Wallace HM (2006) A model of gene-gene and
gene-environment interactions and its implications for targeting
environmental interventions by genotype. Theoretical Biology and
Medical Modelling, 3 (35), doi:10.1186/1742-4682-3-35.
16 Smith L (2009) Robot scientist "Adam"
solves genetic problems. The Times. 3 April 2009.